Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6: Should You Upgrade?

Wi-Fi 6 (or 6E) is the way to go if you upgrade from Wi-Fi 5.

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Last Updated: Dec 20, 2023
Abstract illustration depicting Wi-Fi as waves
The version of Wi-Fi you have affects its speed, features, and number of devices it can support at one time.
  • Wi-Fi 6 is vastly superior to Wi-Fi 5, featuring faster speeds and better technology.
  • Since its introduction in 2019, more devices than ever are compatible with Wi-Fi 6, allowing them to tap fully into the benefits of the technology.
  • Wi-Fi 7 is on the horizon, but Wi-Fi 6E is still better as an upgrade option from Wi-Fi 6.

Wi-Fi 5 enjoyed a long run as the gold standard, but it’s old news now. Wi-Fi 6 is here, it’s widely supported, and you should probably be using it. Of course, you’ll want to go with Wi-Fi 6E for the fastest speeds possible, and the ever-looming Wi-Fi 7 is coming soon. Rather than worrying about all that now, though, let’s focus on the two most widely available standards in use today: Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6. In this guide, we’ll demystify the two standards by highlighting their capabilities, differences, and practical implications for everyday use.

Wi-Fi 5 vs. Wi-Fi 6 at a Glance

Feature Wi-Fi 5 Wi-Fi 6
Frequency band 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz
Max speeds Up to 6.9 Gbps Up to 9.6 Gbps
Channel width Up to 160 MHz Up to 160 MHz, with additional support for 80 + 80 MHz
MIMO SU-MIMO (Single-User MIMO) MU-MIMO (Multi-user MIMO)
Modulation Up to 256-QAM Up to 1024-QAM

What Is Wi-Fi 5?

Wi-Fi 5, also known as 802.11ac, operates exclusively on the 5 GHz frequency band. It introduced features such as wider channel bandwidths (up to 160 MHz), higher-order modulation (up to 256-QAM), and increased MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) capabilities. Those advancements allowed for a significant boost in data rates, reaching 3.5 Gbps or higher under ideal conditions.

Wi-Fi 5 Has Practical Limitations

Wi-Fi 5 marked a substantial improvement over its predecessor (802.11n), offering faster speeds and better handling of high-bandwidth applications like video streaming and gaming. It falls short when handling multiple devices simultaneously, however, which is a growing necessity in our increasingly connected homes.

What Is Wi-Fi 6?

Wi-Fi 6 builds on the strengths of Wi-Fi 5 while addressing its limitations. It operates on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and introduces technologies such as OFDMA (orthogonal frequency-division multiple access) and MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input, multiple output). The newer technologies enable Wi-Fi 6 more efficient data transmission, better signal quality, and lower latency. Wi-Fi 6 is also theoretically capable of delivering speeds up to 9.6 Gbps.

Wi-Fi 6 Key Features

Below are some key new features that enhance Wi-Fi 6’s speeds and reliability. If your eyes are glazing over, feel free to skip this and know they’re all features that do their thing automatically. You don’t have to worry about them if you just want to get online.

  • OFDMA: Improves efficiency by allowing multiple users with varying bandwidth needs to be served simultaneously.
  • BSS Coloring: Reduces interference from neighboring networks, enhancing signal clarity.
  • Target wake time (TWT): Increases device battery life by scheduling communication between the device and the router.

Wi-Fi 6 Is Much Faster Than Wi-Fi 5

Abstract illustration depicting Wi-Fi 6 with a router, large 6, and multiple antennas.
Wi-Fi 6 is more widely supported now than ever, and it even has an extended version (Wi-Fi 6E).

Wi-Fi 6 significantly outperforms Wi-Fi 5 in terms of speed, especially if you have a variety of connected devices in your home eating up the airwaves. In an older Wi-Fi 5 setup, you may struggle to use multiple devices at the same time. Wi-Fi 6 helps solve that issue to make your Wi-Fi experience more consistent and reliable.

The max speeds advertised on things like routers are more of a best-case scenario than a usual expectation, but Wi-Fi 6 lets you get closer than ever to the speeds your internet provider advertises.

Wi-Fi 6 Handles Data More Efficiently Than Wi-Fi 5

Wi-Fi 6 efficiently manages network traffic, reducing latency and improving network capacity — especially in crowded areas. It achieves that through multiple streams, a significant upgrade from its predecessor, Wi-Fi 5.

Imagine streams like lines in a cafeteria. Each line represents a “stream” in Wi-Fi terms. The more lines (or streams) there are, the more people can get their lunch at the same time. In Wi-Fi, the streams are pathways for data.

Unlike Wi-Fi 5, which mainly supports up to 4-by-4 stream configurations, Wi-Fi 6 can handle 8-by-8 streams on the 5 GHz band. That improvement means more data can be transmitted simultaneously, boosting overall network efficiency and speed.

Wi-Fi 5’s first wave could support 3-by-3 streams, but only for a single user at a time (SU-MIMO). The second wave expanded to 4-by-4 streams and multiple users (MU-MIMO). Wi-Fi 6 furthers that with more robust MU-MIMO capabilities, allowing for more complex and efficient data handling.

Advanced Wi-Fi 6 routers use tri-band technology, dividing eight streams across two 5 GHz radios and, in Wi-Fi 6E routers, adding up to four streams on a 6 GHz radio. That division enhances bandwidth distribution, especially in environments with multiple devices. Wi-Fi 6 also offers up to 4-by-4 configurations on the 2.4 GHz band, contributing to routers advertising 12 streams in total.

Practical translation: More streams equates to faster speeds and better performance across multiple devices. The configuration makes Wi-Fi 6 especially suitable for environments with high data demands.

Wi-Fi 6 Is Widely Compatible

A collage of Wi-Fi 6–enabled devices.
There’s a good chance most of your devices will support Wi-Fi 6 if you purchased them in the past five years.

Even though Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible with older devices, you can fully take advantage of its capabilities only with devices that are compatible with Wi-Fi 6. Thankfully, since the standard was introduced in 2019, there has been a significant increase in the number of devices that support Wi-Fi 6, including routers, smartphones, laptops, tablets, and even smart-home devices.

The widespread adoption of the standard means users can increasingly take full advantage of the faster speeds, improved efficiency, and better performance Wi-Fi 6 offers — especially in environments with many connected devices.

Other Ways Wi-Fi 6 Improves on Wi-Fi 5

In addition to stream improvements, Wi-Fi 6 also brings advancements in battery longevity, data management, security, availability, and interference reduction. Here are some other features Wi-Fi 6 has that Wi-Fi 5 does not:

  • Target wait time: This feature optimizes battery usage by scheduling data transmission times, reducing the need for devices to be awake constantly and waiting for data.
  • Better data management: Wi-Fi 6 uses orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA), allowing for more efficient bandwidth use by splitting channels into smaller subchannels, thus accommodating more users simultaneously.
  • Enhanced security: With WPA3, Wi-Fi 6 offers improved security measures over its predecessors, such as better password protection and enhanced encryption.
  • Wider availability: Wi-Fi 6 is now the standard for most devices, and users benefit from its advanced features even when connecting to older Wi-Fi 5 networks, although with some limitations.
  • Reduced interference: Features such as BSS coloring and dynamic fragmentation in Wi-Fi 6 mitigate interference issues, especially in crowded network environments.

The Bottom Line: Wi-Fi 6 Is the Standard and Wi-Fi 7 Is Coming

Choosing between Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6 depends on individual needs, the number of devices, and the importance of network speed and efficiency. Wi-Fi 6 offers superior performance, especially in high-density environments, but Wi-Fi 5 may still be adequate for less demanding scenarios. Ultimately, it comes down to your devices, budget, and household activities.Wi-Fi 6E is already on the market, and Wi-Fi 7 is on the horizon. At this point, it’s probably best to think of Wi-Fi 5 as an outdated standard. If you have it and it still works for you, no problem. But you’ll eventually run into issues as you purchase newer devices.